Features / Focus

The Art Market in the Post-Pandemic World – An Interview with Simon Fisher

posted 19 Aug 2022

The Covid-19 crisis has heralded huge changes across every aspect of society. The pandemic amplified opportunities and changes, especially in the digital realm, and people are now paying close attention to digital transformations. The art scene particularly saw unprecedented new phenomena, such as the adoption of virtual reality (VR) exhibitions and online auctions, the activation of online viewing rooms, and the expansion of online art market platforms. Embracing its reopening in the year 2022, TheArtro presents special feature to look back and reflect upon the changes that the art world has undergone over the past two years, as well as to project future prospects and outlook. To this end, interviews were conducted with seven visual art experts working in various art fields worldwide. Clara Runge (ZKM), Eunice Lee (Whitney Museum of American Art), Johann König (König Galerie), Victoria Siddall (Frieze), Tim Schneider (Artnet News), Jennifer Pratt (Artsy), Simon Fisher (OCULA) each participated in this project and discussed the transformation of the art industry since Covid-19.

Simon Fisher, Founder of Ocula

Simon Fisher, Founder of Ocula

Q. What are your thoughts on how COVID-19 has transformed the art world, and how it has affected the global art market?

A. Covid fast-tracked the art world’s engagement with the digital world. This had the benefit of expanding the art market’s online audience very quickly, which in turn had an impact on the global art market. Unable to travel, hold IRL exhibitions, or meet with clients in person, the art world adopted a raft of digital initiatives very quickly to survive. There were some art organizations who had very sophisticated digital strategies already in place, and they took advantage of this head start as lockdowns took hold. There was also a raft of galleries who were forced to double down on investment to catch-up quickly.
Platforms like Ocula, art fairs like Art Basel and galleries like David Zwirner launched online viewing rooms, and art organizations quickly adapted tools like Zoom to engage collectors. Meanwhile the auction houses also moved quickly to upscale and activate new digital infrastructure that allowed auction sales to continue. The audience for Ocula’s artist profile pages, for example, grew by over 1,000% in 2020 and while growth slowed as people came out of lockdown in 2022, the audience gained over this period hasn’t been lost – rather they have stayed for the ride.
The successful re-opening and holding of IRL exhibitions and art fairs over the last few months around the world has demonstrated that not only did the art world weather the storm, but it has actually bounced back stronger. With new audiences becoming engaged and the art world’s appetite for an extended online experience of art now firmly entrenched, I expect that the digital drive will continue to foster new art collectors.

Q. How do you predict the art world will change in a post-pandemic future?

A. If anything, the Pandemic experience taught the art world it needs to be innovative, and that old structures can be rethought. It opened the doors for dynamic change. With galleries returning to full exhibition programming and the art fair circuit taking off, the atmosphere at Basel in June was very positive. However, while the galleries and organizations dealing in the top end of the market boomed during the Pandemic, many who deal in the middle end really had to work hard to stay afloat. We may see a consolidation across the art world, as the larger galleries absorb business from medium-sized galleries who cannot withstand any further period of volatility or absorb the costs of doing business in a reopened art world.
The top end of the art market benefited from the extraordinary growth in wealth that took place over the Pandemic—with the number of billionaires growing exponentially around the globe. In 2021, Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips’ sales grew over 200% year on year, slightly surpassing 2019 sales. Ocula’s advisory sales team certainly benefited from this top tier growth too. Interestingly enough, emerging galleries with exceptional programs did well too, with the high-end collectors aggressively seeking out new talent. We may see some of these emerging galleries playing a bigger role in the art world. We may also see increasing diversification in how galleries do business, perhaps expanding into art advisory, or investing further in digital initiatives. We may see some of the larger galleries take on the auction and digital world even more aggressively than they have thus far.

Q. Also, what is the outlook for the art market in the post-pandemic world, and what should we prepare for? What is the next big challenge?

A. A possible recession is probably the immediate challenge. Alongside this is the reality that travel may be returning, but not as we knew it before. The world now knows that borders can shut quickly, and the climate crisis may also contribute to a less fluid art world. We need to be ready to meet these challenges. I suspect galleries will continue to finetune their digital strategies, as well as prepare their balance sheets for possible volatility.

Q. As COVID-19 amplified opportunities and challenges from a digital perspective, people are paying more attention to digital transformation. What are the possibilities for digital transformation going forward, and what preparations are required?

A. The art market’s digital shift isn’t going anywhere, but equally our advisory clients have expressed how pleased they are to return to viewing art in person. I think a balance between the two is a good thing. Ultimately, digitization can make the art market more accessible and expand the collector base dramatically, but there is nothing like seeing great art in person. Those who can leverage technology to scale their businesses at low marginal cost will do well, so it is likely we will see the art world become even more sophisticated in terms of digital engagement.
We know that people like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk have big plans for the Metaverse. There is much discussion about how we might experience that world through a pair of augmented reality glasses. What does that mean for the art world? Who knows? In the next 12 months we could be taking tours of Oscar Murillo’s latest show with a hologram of the artist. Will you be able to even smell the paint? I am not sure. But one thing I know is that the more different ways people can experience art, the better. I don’t think the growth of the digital experience needs to come at the expense of experiencing art in first-hand. If anything, I suspect it will encourage people to see more art.

Q. What is the future of online platforms in your opinion?

A. I expect the online art market will continue to expand. There may be consolidation of online platforms, but certainly from our perspective we can only see our audience growing and we plan to stick around. The different online platforms offer collectors different things. Artsy and Artnet are very focused on the Western art world, with Artsy being more New York centric and Artnet more European focused. Ocula is global, but we began in the Asia Pacific and so our content has emanated from this position. Artsy and Artnet of course have also moved into the auction world, whereas Ocula is focused on showcasing the programs of galleries.
While Artnet and Artsy are an exceptional resource for discovering a wide selection of art, Ocula aims to offer a more selective approach. We are very careful about which galleries are featured on Ocula. Our aim is to bring our audience a selection of the world’s best art by working with the world’s leading galleries. Galleries have to subscribe to be on Ocula, and membership applications are vetted by a selection committee of gallerists. I believe collectors get a great deal of benefit from Artsy and ArtNet’s wide approach, but for those wanting to hone in on a certain caliber of art, Ocula offers a means of navigating the art world.

Q. And then, what are your thoughts/perspectives on NFT art?

A. While the market for NFTs will likely be volatile, I expect the technology behind them and the growing acceptance of cryptocurrency to have a long-lasting effect on the art world. Importantly, NFTs also represent an exciting opportunity for digital artists to sell their work to a whole new base of collectors. Starting with the $69.3 million Beeple sale at Christie’s in March 2021, NFTs have become more and more embedded in the traditional art world, a process that's been covered in depth by our News Editor, Sam Gaskin. In fact, Sam just released a very good report on the NFT market in Ocula Magazine.
All the major auction houses, including Sotheby’s and Phillips, are heavily engaged with NFTs. NFT index funds1) have launched, and galleries like Pace and Lehmann Maupin are developing new ways to sell and display NFTs. You can also view galleries' NFT projects on Ocula.
Last year, NFT art sales totaled US $2.8 billion, which is 16% of the global art market by value. The market has recovered since then, however, and looking ahead it's not clear how strong the collector base for NFTs will be. For the moment, the more traditional collector base doesn’t appear to be heavily invested in NFTs. Some traditional collectors have purchased NFTs for fun, simply to watch what happens next. Many NFT collectors are only now starting to explore traditional art after first getting interested in NFTs through previous investments in cryptocurrency.
The NFT market is likely to be volatile over the course of the next several years. In fact, we’re already seeing some initial excitement from the first wave of NFT auctions wear off. Ethereum has plunged almost 80% since November 2021, and weekly NFT sales have fallen below US $200 million from over $1.8 billion in August 2021, according to market analysts Nonfungible. However, in contrast Pace Gallery just sold out two fantastic NFT projects, one by John Gerrard and one by Jeff Koons, so clearly there is still an appetite for really great NFT artworks. In the future, NFT projects won't all be highly sought after, just as most artworks don't sell for millions of dollars. But I think the best ones will remain highly desirable, especially as artists explore the technology to create new dynamic works that respond to the world around them.

Q. What are some new notable industries in the field of visual arts? What are new emerging issues in the art market?

A. As I mentioned before, the Pandemic saw exponential growth in the number of billionaires, and this translated into high-end sales. I also saw a shift in buying, whereby clients who previously were only buying blue chip artists suddenly also became very interested in discovering and buying new and rising stars. While on the face of it this is a very good thing (it is always good to see young artists and emerging galleries supported), I have some concerns about how this is currently playing out.
New, less wealthy collectors are finding it hard to enter the market, with the wealthier collectors able to secure first dibs on the more affordable emerging artists (often agreeing to donate works to museums for the privilege of being first in line). Another concern is for young artists who suddenly find their work at auction selling at huge prices (sometimes over a million dollars), and coming under pressure to sustain those prices.
I have noted that sometimes there appears to be less consideration as to what is being bought. When you have a big wallet, you can buy on a whim. When you are watching your dollars, decisions may be more considered. How will this impact the quality of the art being bought? We may end up in a situation whereby some of the more critical and challenging artists—who don’t look as good on Instagram—are overlooked by the art market, and to what extent will art then cease to be the barometer on the world?
Another phenomenon is what I call ‘the Instagram artists.’ Suddenly artists are being discovered via Instagram and there may be artists (and collectors) wondering—why bother with a gallery. Instagram is a fantastic tool and it is very positive that artists can grow their market and get attention without needing to have a gallery. However, gallerists are also valuable mentors to young artists and new collectors. They play an important role in helping both artists and collectors navigate the art world.

Q. What is your perspective on the Asian art market? What do you think are the future prospects of the Asian art market?

A. The Asian art market has been very strong for many years, and I expect it to continue to grow. The Chinese art market is the second largest art market behind the US. Dealers in Asia reported some of the most substantial increases in sales over the past two years. Some of the strongest advances in the region were reported in Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore. With the opening of M+ in Hong Kong, we will see a new generation grow up with easy access to a world-class museum, which can only inspire the next generation of artists and collectors.
The opening of Frieze in Seoul is an exciting development too, and it was great to see Taipei Dangdai open again, as well as Art Basel in Hong Kong. The fairs that take place in Asia are exceptional. Seoul is already a very exciting art city, and Frieze will hopefully deliver a wave of new collectors to the scene there. The art scene in Seoul will be galvanized by Frieze over September, just as New York is by Frieze during May, and Miami is during December when Basel lands.
Ocula has had strong relationships with galleries and collectors in Asia for many years, especially in South Korea and Taiwan. I am pleased that Ocula’s Gallery Members include 28 galleries who operate exceptional spaces in South Korea, from Kukje Gallery, to Gallery Baton, to Wooson Gallery, to Lehmann Maupin.

Seo-bo Park, Ecriture (描法) No. 18-81, 1981, Pencil and oil on canvas, 182 x 227 cm

Seo-bo Park, Ecriture (描法) No. 18-81, 1981, Pencil and oil on canvas, 182 x 227 cm, ⓒSeo-bo Park and Kukje Gallery, Image provided by Kukje Gallery

Kukje Gallery K3 Haegue Yang solo exhibition When The Year 2000 Comes installation view

Kukje Gallery K3 Haegue Yang solo exhibition When The Year 2000 Comes installation view, Photo: Chunho An, Image provided by Kukje Gallery

Q. What is attractive about Korean contemporary art? What’s special about it?

A. Korea has long had an exceptional and exciting art scene, and like any sophisticated art scene it is impossible to define it by one set of characteristics. Ocula started following Korean art more closely 10 years ago when our content director Anna Dickie interviewed academic Joan Kee on her book, Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method. Off the back of this, our Editor in Chief Stephanie Bailey wrote a report on The Legacy of Korean Monochrome Painting. Any savvy Western collector who had read that report back in 2014 and turned their eyes to the artists referenced back in it would have been ahead of the curve. Artists like Seo-bo Park and Chong-Hyun Ha are now of course very well-known globally, but back then, they weren’t so well known in the Western art world. These artists were ground-breaking and the Western art world had to catch up. Good works are now very hard to obtain, although we have been lucky enough to place some exceptional examples with clients, including just very recently an exceptional Seo-bo Park work, and of course we have had access to some phenomenal works by Ufan Lee. At the end of the day, good collectors and good galleries are important for encouraging good art. Seoul is very well positioned to continue to be one of the most important art hubs in the world.

Kukje Gallery K3 Haegue Yang solo exhibition When The Year 2000 Comes installation view

LEFT Lee Jihyun, Summer Garage_Kronborg, 2020, Watercolor, oil on canvas, 229 x 177.7 cm, ⓒ LEE Jihyun and Arario Gallery
RIGHT Bae Yoon Hwan, Next Stop is Where You Are 2, 2021, Acrylic on canvas, 73 x 117 cm, ⓒ Bae Yoon Hwan, Image provided by Gallery Baton

Q. Is there any Korean artist you are paying attention to?

A. Artists like Lee Bul, Haegue Yang, and Do-Ho Suh have been on our radar for many years—we have had the honor of interviewing many such artists for Ocula Conversations. There is also Jihyun Lee, who paints surreal, imagined spaces; Hyungkoo Lee, known for his experimental wearables and installations; and Yoon-Hwan Bae, who creates anecdotal paintings populated by animals, as well as many others. Korea has produced some of the greatest artists of the last century, and this is continuing.

1)Index funds are passively managed by mutual funds that try to duplicate the performance of a financial index. The NFT Index is a digital asset index designed to track tokens’ performance within the NFT industry.

Simon Fisher

Simon Fisher is a founder of Ocula. Prior to co-founding Ocula in 2010, he worked as an independent art advisor. With more than two decades of market experience predominantly focusing on Post War and Contemporary art, Simon advises major collections around the world; from the Asia-Pacific region to the Middle East, Europe and the US. His wealth of knowledge and expertise in negotiating private sales and advising on acquisitions, consignments and valuations over the years affords his clients exceptional advice in an ever-changing complex market.

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